Guru in Sikhism : Guru Arjan Dev Ji

The word guru has been in vogue in the Indian religious traditions since ancient times. According to the Aiteraya Upanishad, it implies the one who restrains or removes ignorance: the word gu implies darkness and ru implies one who restrains or removes it. The Sanskrit-English dictionary of Monier-Williams says that the word guru, as a noun, stands for a spiritual parent or preceptor, author of a mantra, preceptor of the gods. Some other scholars have also tried to explain the word by saying that gur means to lift, hurt, kill or eat, and thus the word guru is a person who lifts up a disciple by killing, destroying or removing his ignorance.

Thus, the word guru could, broadly speaking, be taken to mean as the teacher or preceptor who delivers those who accept his teaching and discipline from darkness to enlightenment, from the web of transmigration to mukti or liberation, from the pangs of suffering to eternal bliss. The term has been used in the Indian religious tradition in this sense for quite a long time.

In the ancient Hindu tradition, the Brahmins were the first to be called gurus because they taught Vedic knowledge to the youth of the higher three of the four varnas into which the Hindu society was divided: the Manusmriti says that a Brahmin has the right to study as well as teach the Vedas whereas the Kshatris (Khatris, in Punjabi) and Vaishyas have only the right to study them. Earlier the initiate went to the Brahman guru, studied Vedas and other scriptural literature under his care and served him for several years, but by medieval times when Sikhism originated the situation had underegone a significant change: now the role of the Brahmin guru was limited only to the upanayam or the sacred thread ceremony and for this the former went to the house of the latter to perform the ceremony. Thus, the duties of the Brahmin were limited to the performance of certain ceremonies and get material benefits in lieu of that. Bhai Gurdas in one of his vars also refers to this degenerated social scenario in which the teacher goes to the house of the taught for the sake of material gains. Along side the tradition of the Brahmin guru, Hinduism also saw the growth and development of another tradition of personal spiritual experience. People who were not Brahmins but were enlightened and had the ability to help others attain enlightenment happened to be highly respected in the Hindu society. There have been several instances in Indian history when people with personal spiritual experience, who were not members of the Brahmin varna, claimed a right to teach on the basis of their spiritual experience. Gautama Buddha, Lord Mahavira and many holy men coming from the Bhakti movement belong to this category. Guru Nanak and other Gurus of the Sikh faith can also be counted in this group of persons.

In the Sikh tradition, Guru stands as much for the human teacher or preceptor as for the Divine, and also for the revelation (Word) as it came from Him, and we find the word used in all these senses. However, this identification of the Guru with God is not the identification of the person of the Guru with God, but Guru conceived as sabda or word as revealed by Him. As a human preceptor, Guru in Sikh tradition means the ten spiritual preceptors, from Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539) to Guru Gobind Singh (16661708); no other person however pious or enlightened can claim or be accepted as such. Thereafter, it has been the bani uttered by the Gurus or the Word which has been called and acknowledged as Guru. It is the Gurus’ Word, believed to be divine revelation, which leads man on the way to mukti. Since the Word as communicated by the ten spiritual preceptors and as contained in the scripture is Divine, the Sikh tradition sometimes uses the words God (the source of the Word or revelation), the Word (divine message) and Guru (the instrument used by the Divine to communicate that message to mankind) as synonyms. That is why Guru in Sikhism stands for the human teacher or preceptor, for the Divine and also for Word (revelatory word coming from God), and we find that the Sikh scriptural literature has used the word in all these senses.

The Guru in Sikh tradition is neither God nor God’s incarnation.

There have been repeated references in the scripture to the effect that God never incarnates in human or any other form: the idea of divine incarnation stands outrightly rejected in Sikh faith and tradition. Guru Arjan Dev, in one of his hymns, states that all the gods, goddesses and incarnations are the creation of God. The Lord God has created and annihilated millions of Brahmas and Visnus and Sivas (GGS, V, 1 1 56) The Absolute One is fathomless, and neither the Vedas nor Brahma nor any of the incarnations can comprehend Him in His entirety (GGS, V, 894). Guru Gobind Singh, in his autobiographical Bachitra Natak (VI. 32), is quite unequivocal as he asks his followers that he be not treated or taken as God: he who calls him God must suffer the pangs of hell, he warns. Rather Guru Gobind Singh calls himself the son and slave of God. Obviously, this idea of God’s son must not be confused with the Christian view of Jesus being the son of God.

The Sikh tradition takes the Gurus to be perfectly realized souls whom God selected as His instruments so as to communicate His Word to mankind in general. It is through them that God’s word or revelation enters human history because it is through them that God’s word is revealed. In other words, Guru is the voice of God, God’s self-revelation in mundane language. He is, no doubt, a vital link in man’s spiritual progress, but he only shows man the way: he is only the examplar and the guide, but the man has to tread the path himself. In fact, the scripture reiterates that the guidance of the Guru is so essential that no spiritual gain can come without it. But at the same time it makes clear that he is not an intercessor and, as such, does not take the disciple to a higher stage of spirituality as if on crutches or through miracle.

In the Sikh tradition, it is believed that the body of the Guru has been the repository of the Light Divine. This body has been the medium for the articulation of the Divine Word or the revelation as it came from God. So this body is worthy of reverence, but what deserves a devotee’s worship is the Word or the divine Word.

That is why in Sikhism the Guru is taken as an object of veneration but not as a deity to worship. The historical Guru or the personGurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, were the central point of focus for the congregations and the living examples of the truth they happened to bring to light through the divine revelation. They received the divine message, articulated it and communicated it to mankind in mundane language and they themselves lived up to the message they imparted to others. But in the final analysis of real importance to us all is the Word coming through them.

To understand the true nature of the Guru in Sikhism, a special figure is employed to describe the transference of the office of Guru. The Guruship passes from one Guru to the other as one candle lights another. The metaphor has two connotations: one, the real and true Guru is God who is the source of all light (knowledge or jnana). Second, Guru is not to be confused with the human form, i.e. the unlit body: it is not the body but the light within that is important. The Sikh exegetes have given various connotations to the word Guru, depending on the different etymological interpretations. The most common connotation, accepted in Sikhism has been that Guru is the banisher of darkness (gu stands for darkness and ru for one who helps in its eradication or removal). It is the guidance and help of the Guru which enlightens one by providing him right knowledge and by removing the darkness of ignorance.

The Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture, is both the result and the foundation of the belief-systems of the Sikh religion. It is the result because it verbalizes the revelation as experienced by the spiritual preceptors of the faith. It is perceived to be the foundation because this revelatory experience, as uttered in mundane language, becomes the permanent point of reference for the creedal articulations of Sikhism. We have used the words ‘perceived to be’ because the real foundation of the religion is not the scripture as such but the experience as recorded in the scripture: the subtle but very significant difference between the scripture as such and the Word or message as contained therein needs to be kept in mind. Besides, the scripture is also normative as it serves as the basis of the code of conduct and ethics for the followers as well as the bond to keep the community together. The former helps in the creation of a social set-up wherein prevail the values of equality and love, justice and self-respect, compassion and altruism. The latter provides the community a separate and distinct identity. As it is, the scripture is the fount of the entire Sikh spiritual and social thought, a sort of constitution wherein are enshrined the parameters which determine the Sikh way of life as well as means for the establishment of an ideal social structure as envisioned by the Gurus.

Guru Granth Sahib, originally called Pothi or the Adi Granth, was first compiled by Guru Arjan in AD 1604 and it contained the revelatory hymns, called bani or sabd, of the first five Gurus of the Sikh faith as well as those of certain holy men coming from the Hindu and Muslim traditions. Later on, Guru Gobind Singh added to these hymns those of his spiritual predecessor, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and just before his demise in 1708, bestowed on it the office of Guru for all times to come. Thereafter the Pothi/Adi Granth came to be called and venerated as the Guru Granth Sahib or the living Guru for the Sikhs. No doubt, the scripture acquired this pontifical status only in 1708, but it was highly venerated even earlier. There have been numerous references within the scripture to the effect that the Word is Guru. Guru Ram Das says that bani or Word and Guru are the same – bani guru guru hai bani vichi bani amritu sare, GGS, IV, 982. Guru Arjan also makes a very unequivocal statement as he says that pothi or the holy volume containing the Word is the abode of God – pothi parmesar ka thanu (GGS, V, 1226).There have also been several instances in the Sikh history and tradition indicating deep regard shown to the Word by the person-Gurus.

Here a word about Khalsa is also called for because the Sikh tradition believes that Guru Gobind Singh bestowed the office of Guru on the granth (Guru Granth Sahib) and the panth (Khalsa Panth). The creation of the Khalsa falls within the essential Sikh religious scheme as pronounced by the founder of the faith. The Sikh tradition believes that Guru Nanak received commandment from God (Nirankari) to redeem humanity by preaching the message of sabda. Similarly, Guru Gobind Singh also says in his autobiographical Bachitra Natak that he was ordained by Akalpurakh (God) to spread dharma and eradicate evil. He began his task with a call to arouse within the humans a sense of commitment – commitment to truth, to God. He made the call on the Vaisakhi day of AD 1699, and the five who came forward to offer their heads to the Guru at the altar of dharma did not belong to any particular caste or region. The Guru gave them the pahul or baptism of the double-edged sword and these five, called the Five Beloved Ones in Sikh tradition, constituted the nucleus of the Khalsa Panth. Since the word khalsa, derived from the Persian language used in the comtemporary revenue vocabulary, stood for the crown lands, the word in the Sikh tradition came to mean for those who were directly related to Guru and God, without any intermediary. This oneness of the Khalsa with the Guru is witnessed in the fact that the Guru submitted himself before these Five Beloved Ones to receive the same pahul from them which he had earlier given them, thus earning for himself the unique of epithet of being both the Guru and the disciple at the same time. In his writings also, he has unequivocally declared the Khalsa of being in his own image – khalsa mero rup hai khas.

Thus, the creation of Khalsa has a direct bearing on the concept of Guru in Sikhism. Guru Gobind Singh declared that he belongs to the Khalsa and the Khalsa belonged to him. This virtually signalled the merger of the two. The granth or the scripture, as compiled by Guru Arjan Dev, remained an object of veneration for almost the whole of seventeenth century. It was believed to be a repository of spiritual knowledge. After the declaration of Guru Gobind Singh that he had merged himself within the brotherhood of the Khalsa, the personal Guruship stood abolished, but the concept of Guru remained intact. The decision of the Guru crystallised into the twin doctrine of Guru Granth and Guru Panth that was also a manifestation of the miri-piri doctrine. The Sikh tradition believes that the Word as contained in the Guru Granth Sahib is the spirit incarnate of the ten Gurus whereas the Khalsa Panth is their physical manifestation.


So far as the hymns as we find incorporated in the scripture are concerned, Guru Nanak refers to them as khasam ki bani or Word as received by him from God and that he Conveyed it to mankind as it came to him (GGS, I, 722). Guru Arjan Dev also reiterates the same when he calls it dhur ki bani or the Word coming from the Highest (GGS, V, 628). Guru Amar Das refers to this bani as the cause of light (knowledge) in this world. This oneness of the Source of Word, the Word and the medium of communicating the Word to mankind stands stressed by all the Gurus, but Guru Ram Das makes it very explicit as he proclaims on the one hand that there is not even a little difference between the Guru and God and both of them are one (GGS, IV, 442) and, on the other hand, he also says that the Word is the Guru and the Guru is the Word or bani (GGS, IV, 982). Thus, God, Word and Guru become essentially one with each other in the Sikh ontological thought.

There are also instances in the Sikh history and tradition which show that the person Gurus held the Word or bani in high esteem.

We shall here refer to only two of them from the life of Guru Arjan Dev. As some of the Sikh chronicles say, Guru Arjan went to Baba Mohan to get from him the collection of hymns of his spiritual predecessor which, it is said, was available with him in two volumes. After getting this from him, the Guru respectfully placed the holy possession in a palanquin and took them to Amritsar where he sat down to compile the scripture. As the manuscripts were being carried in the palanquin,from Goindwal to Amritsar, Guru Arjan Dev is said to have followed it bare foot as a mark of respect.The second incident relates to the days when the scripture was already compiled and was ready for installation in the newly constructed Harimandar. The holy volume was installed there on manji (literally cot) sahib, but the Guru himself sat on the bare floor. Even during the night when the scripture was put to rest on the manji sahib, the Guru used to sleep on the bare floor, i.e.

on the lower platform. So highly was the Word respected by the Guru himself. Even later on, it is said that once Guru Gobind Singh was approached by certain Sikhs with the request to get both the Adi Granth/Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth bound together in one volume. The Guru, as says Chhibbar’s Bansavalinama, forbade them saying that the former contained the revelatory hymns whereas the latter was his poetic pastime, and thus they cannot be put together.

There have been some schismatic groups within Sikhism which refuse to accept the fact of the scripture being given the status of the Guru. For example, the Kukas or Namdharis have preferred to continue the line of person Gurus after the tenth Guru, and they have their eleventh and twelfth person Gurus even though they pay reverence to the scripture as well. The recent mushroom growth of deras with largely the Sikh following is also a dangerous development. In the name of the propagation of the Gurus’

message, several of the leaders of these deras do not work as much toward uniting man with the Real One as do they endeavour to unite the seekers unto themselves. Many of them pose as person-Gurus without of course stating so in explicit terms and in the process they also prescribe a rahit or code for their followers different from other Sikhs. This causes schism among the Sikhs for the reason that this is a deviation from the Sikh belief in ten person Gurus and in the Word (Guru Granth Sahib) there after and also divides the community into followers of varied deras rather than those of the One. This trend needs to be rectified and the community needs to take several steps to this regard.

But in the present context, it would suffice to present certain empirical evidences to the effect that Guru Gobind Singh put to end the institution of person-Guru and instead bestowed the office of Guru for all times to come on the scripture. There have been available several contemporary sources which testify to this fact.

One such source is an entry in the Bhatt Vahi Talauda Parganah Jind. A free rendering into English of the relevant entry in this Vahi would read as follows:

Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Maser, son of Guru Tegh

Bahadur, grandson of Guru Hargobind, greatgrandson of

Guru Arjan, of the family of Guru Ram Das, Surajbansi

Gosal clan, Sodhi Khatri, resident of Anandpur, parganah Kahlur, now at Nanded, on the Godavari bank in the

Deccan, asked Bhai Daya Singh, on Wednesday, shukla

chauath of the month of Kartik, 1765 Bikrami [16 October 1708], to fetch the Granth Sahib. The Guru placed before it five pice and a coconut and bowed his head before it.

He said to the congregation; ‘It is my commandment:

“Own Sri Granth Ji in my place. He who so acknowledges it will obtain his reward. The Guru will rescue him. Know this as the truth.'”

Some of the Bhatts, hereditary panegyrists, genealogists or family bards, who came into the Sikh fold in significant numbers at the time of Guru Arjan Dev, recorded events of the lives of the Gurus in their scrolls called Vahis. Some of these scrolls are said to have been extant even to this day in some Bhatt families, especially at the village of Karsindhu in Jind district. The script of the entries in these scrolls is called Bhatakshari – a kind of family code like lande and mahajani. According to Giani Garja Singh, the only known scholar to have worked on these manuscripts, the author of this entry, quoted above, is one Narbud Singh Bhatt who was with Guru Gobind Singh at Nanded at that time.

The second such testimony is a letter issued by reference of Guru Gobind Singh’s wife Mata Sundri. This letter, still preserved with a family of Bhai Rupa village in Bathinda district, exhorts all Sikhs to have faith only in ten human preceptors; to believe in any other human preceptor is called a mortal sin. The letter goes on further to say: “Go only to the Ten Gurus in search of the Word. . . . The Guru resides in sabda. The Lord hath merged His own self in the Guru through whom He has revealed His Word. The Word is the life of all life, for, through it, one experiences God”.The letter also makes a clear injunction against Ajit Singh (the adopted son of Mata Sundri) posing as Guru and some among the followers of Banda Singh Bahadur acknowledging their leader as Guru.

Bhai Nand Lai, one of the court poets of Guru Gobind Singh, in his Rahitnama, i.e. code of conduct, also testifies to the above fact. Nand Lai, who is believed to have spent long years at Anandpur under the care and patronage of the Guru and who has been known for his elegant Persian poetry, was at that time also at Nanded, though now in the camp of Emperor Bahadur Shah as his minister. An epilogue at the end of his Rahitnama sums up as under the last words the Guru is believed to have addressed to the Sikhs then present:

He who would wish to see the Guru,

Let him come and see the Granth.

He who would wish to speak with him,

Let him read and reflect upon what says the Granth.

He who would wish to hear his word,

Let him with all his head read the Granth,

Or listen to the Granth being recited.

Bhai Prahlad Singh is another of Guru Gobind Singh’s disciples who has also composed a Rahitnama, or code of conduct, wherein he records the commandment of the Guru in the following words: By the word of the Timless One

Has the Khalsa been manifested.

This is my commandment for all my Sikhs:

You will acknowledge Granth as the Guru.

There have been some contemporary non-Sikh sources

as well which testify to this fact. One example in support of the above contention is the Sanskrit manuscript

Nanakcandrodayamahakavyam by Devaraja Sharma: this has been published in book form by the Sanskrit University, Varanasi, a few years back. All these and several such other sources coupled with the strong Sikh tradition reiterate our statement that after the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the scripture, now called Guru Granth Sahib, has been the Guru for all times to come for the Sikhs.

Guru Granth Sahib is, however, not just a scripture, a holy book, or an anthology of hymns for the Sikhs: it is a lot different and much more. It is the spiritual mentor, the preceptor, the living Guru for the Sikhs.They hold it in deep respect, but do not worship it. Any injury or harm to it is invariably taken as an injury or harm to a living being. It is the presiding deity in all Sikh shrines but it is not the object of worship at an altar. It is the guiding principle for a Sikh in all spheres of life: he seeks guidance from and prays to it while starting a new venture, for the successful completion of an auspicious ceremony in one’s life or family, to tide over a crisis in individual or communal life, and so on.

Since the scripture is not a systematic philosophical treatise, we do not find any specific text or texts dealing with the concept of Guru, though there are numerous references scattered throughout the scripture defining the concept and expressing the importance and role of the Guru. Among the most often used metaphors fDr him are the tirath or the place of holy pilgrimage, the khevat or the one who takes man across the world-ocean, dipak or the lamp which lights up the entire world, joti or the light which illumines the world, data or the donor of wisdom, paras or the philosopher’s stone which turns even the base material into gold, sura or the hero whose sword of knowledge rends the veil of darkness, and so on.

In the scripture, the Guru and the Sabda or Word are also juxtaposed. They have also been used synonymously and also as one word, i.e. sabdaguru. The word sabda, taken from Sanskrit but of obscure etymology, can be rendered as sound, voice, utterance, speech or word. In the distinctive Sikh usage, it stands for any hymn or composition as found included in the Guru Granth Sahib. Here it stands for the word or message or revelation as it came to the Gurus direct from God. As the sabda in the Sikh context is believed to be spoken by God, it implies the voice or the utterance is divine. And the utterances as received from the Lord are communicated in mundane language by the Guru for the benefit of the mankind. This means that the word or sabda originally belongs to God and that the Guru is only the instrument or the vehicle through which it is articulated and communicated. As we said above, Guru Nanak calls himself a shair or poet and his speech as khasam ki bani or the utterance of the Lord. Similarly, the following Gurus also reiterate Guru Nanak’s view with minor differences in phraseology. Since the Divine voice and the joti within the person of the Guru are the same in essence, the scripture identifies one with the other – bani guru guru hai bani {bani or the utterances of the Guru are the Guru, and Guru is what he utters), says Guru Ram Das.

The above implies that the historical Gurus of the Sikh faith uttered whatever they received from the Lord God. There are several hymns in the scripture testifying to the fact that they uttered only the Word as received from God – jaisi mai avai khasam hi bani taisara kari gian ve lalo (O Lalo, I proclaim the Lord’s Word as it comes to me), says Guru Nanak. Thus, in this sense, God Himself becomes the primal Guru of the whole creation, and this Guru chooses certain persons to act as His instruments. This is how Guru Nanak, in his Sidh Gosti, refers to God as his Guru.

“God has placed Himself within the Guru, which He explicitly explains,” says the scripture (466). Since God’s chosen ones remain ever in tune with the supreme Being, the scripture accepts God as residing within the Guru. Thus, Guru, God and Word (God’s Word made manifest through the Guru) are used

interchangeably in the scripture.

The Guru is sent by God but he is not the incarnation of God, as we have said in the preceding pages. The two most important attributes of God declared in the scripture are His being ajuni (not subject to birth) and saibhan (self-existent or not created or born of any external agency). Thus, God is never born in any form whatever. The scripture very severely condemns those who believe in the idea of Divine incarnation. There are always in human society people who are not but only pretend as Gurus or pirs or holy men of some or the other denomination. The scripture calls such people blind guides, traders in ignorance and superstition, and so on. For example, at one place the scripture denounces those selfproclaimed gurus and pirs who go begging and are parasites on society. The humankind is advised not to fall at the feet of such people because a blind guru or pir cannot lead his disciple on the path to spiritual progression. On the contrary, the Sikh scripture holds that an enlightened person who knows the true way of life can never be a parasite, rather he makes an honest earning with the sweat of his brow and shares it with the needy. We ought to be today wary of the self-proclaimed babas and sants who tend to be hedonic, prefering material comforts at the expense of simple austere life given to moral and spiritual values and who try to cover up their lack of spirituality with an aura of worldly grandeur.

In sum, Sikhism accepts sabd as Guru. There are several references in the scripture to the effect that sabd or bani is the Guru. Guru Arjan has also equated pothi (the volume that contained the divine word) with God – pothi parmesar ka thanu (Pothi is the dwelling place of God). We have also instances from Sikh history and tradition when the person-Guru placed the Granth or the word as contained in the Granth in a position superior to himself.

This, no doubt, implies that the Granth or pothi enjoyed from the very day of its compilation a respected position because it contained the divine word. However, during the lifetime of the ten Gurus, the person-Gurus remained the main focus of the devotees’ faith.

After Guru Gobind Singh put an end to the succession of personGurus, the place of the Guru came to be occupied by the Word or the Word as contained in the Granth. To say that this position was bestowed on the scripture later on by the community out of some historical necessity is to misread the history and misguide the masses. However, Guru in Sikhism does not take man to a position of higher spirituality as if by miracle or on a crutch: he simply guides who shows seekers the path and the seeker has to tread the path himself.